If your image of a biblical prophet is of a stern, angry, bearded figure who does nothing but hurl condemnation at everyone, let me introduce you to the prophet Hosea.
We’re considering the message of another of the remarkable Hebrew prophets, Hosea. In the arrangement of the modern Bible, Hosea is the first of the group of twelve known as the minor prophets. (“Minor,” that is, as opposed to the four major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, whose books are much longer). Hosea is “minor” in length only; there is nothing small or inferior about him. The quality of his life, the power of his writing, and the depth of his insight into the nature of God rank Hosea as one of the world’s great religious geniuses.
Hosea was a contemporary of the thundering preacher Amos. Both addressed their messages to the kingdom of Israel (that is, the northern part of the divided Jewish people) during the eighth century b.c. During the first half of that century Israel was prosperous and stable, and, as so often happens, only a small group at the top of society benefitted. The wealth that was amassed by the upper classes led to tremendous social and spiritual problems. Those who were rich and powerful forgot about God and began to worship the false gods of materialism and pleasure. They forgot, too, their responsibility for caring about and helping others who were less fortunate. They ignored the demands of God’s law which called for fairness, mercy and right living in society. Hosea, like all the Old Testament prophets, was sent by God to announce God’s righteous anger against all those sins, and to warn of inevitable judgment because of them.
But Hosea also had another message to deliver, one that was even more important. He came to tell the people about God’s heart. Despite their offensive behavior, despite their unfaithfulness to him, God still cared for them. Though the people’s sins had broken his heart, God went on loving them just the same.
THE HEART OF GOD
The book of Hosea begins on a startling note. The Lord commanded the prophet to go marry a prostitute!
The Lord . . . said to me, “Go. Get married to a woman who will commit adultery. Take as your own the children who will be born as a result of her adultery. Marry her, because the people of the land are guilty of the worst kind of adultery. They have not been faithful to me.” So I married Gomer.
This was not a movie script. The woman Hosea took for his wife wasn’t the common Hollywood type of prostitute. You know the story – the hooker with a heart of gold, forced into her wayward life by adverse circumstances but longing to be delivered from it by the handsome leading man, who discovers her true worth, falls in love and marries her, and they settle down to raise a happy family. No, this was real life. Gomer, the woman Hosea married, was a real prostitute. She was cold, hardened, mercenary, feeling no loyalty towards or real affection for any man, incapable of the commitment which marital love requires. Their marriage did not turn out happily, nor was Hosea’s family a model of stability and joy.
After they were married, Gomer bore several children to Hosea (1:4-9). Then she left him for other lovers. Like the prodigal son, Gomer soon found herself in misery and virtual bondage, scorned, abused and humiliated by the men who used her. But unlike the prodigal, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, return home. So God told Hosea to go to her, buy her back out of her slavery, take her and love her again. Hard to believe!
The Lord said to me, “Go. Show your love to your wife again. She is loved by another man. And she has committed adultery. But I want you to love her just as I love the people of Israel. They turn to other gods. . . . In spite of that, I love my people.”
This is basically the whole story of Hosea, related in those few verses from the opening chapters. The rest of the book – by far the majority – is a poetic commentary on the spiritual meaning of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer.
Do you wonder how the Lord could command his servant to do something like marrying this unfaithful and immoral woman? Apart from the personal hardship and grief it brought to Hosea (no one ever said being a prophet was easy and enjoyable work!), it seems like such a foolish thing to do. Why did God order it? The answer is that God did this to give the most powerful illustration imaginable of his love for his people Israel. Hosea’s marriage is a parable of the Lord’s relationship with his people, whose spiritual unfaithfulness is mirrored by Gomer’s marital infidelity. The book of Hosea contains an unforgettable message of what not just Israel’s but our waywardness, our readiness to give our hearts to other things instead of to God, does to him. Hosea helps us to feel how God feels. More than that, Hosea’s marriage experience enabled him to understand, perhaps better than any other biblical writer, the profound depth of the love of God for people who rejected him. His book offers one of the most penetrating glimpses anywhere into the very heart of God.
Do you sometimes wonder what God is like – I mean really like? Most of us have some notion of what God is like, but generally it’s pretty vague: God is a spirit up in the sky, a cosmic force, a power behind the universe. Christians know the Bible is the place to look for more accurate information about God. There we learn many of his traits. God is all-powerful, and all-knowing – the Creator. God is holy and just – the Judge. God is merciful and full of grace – the Redeemer. But all those words; what do they add up to? When we ask, “What is God really like?” we mean, “What is he like towards me? How does he feel about me?” What is the “bottom line” with God? Hosea tells us. He shows God’s heart to us. And, despite all the pain that heart feels because of our unfaithfulness, it is still a heart of unfailing love.
BROKEN, HOLY, LOVING
In the climax of his book – perhaps it could be called the climax of the whole Old Testament – Hosea tells us about God’s heart. He changes the metaphor. Now it’s not a husband’s love for his unfaithful wife, but a father’s love for his disobedient and rebellious son.
“When Israel was a young nation, I loved them,
I chose to bring my son out of Egypt.
But the more I called out to Israel,
the further they went away from me. . . .
I taught Israel to walk.
I took them up in my arms.
But they did not realize I was the one who took care of them.
“People of Ephraim, how can I give you up?
Israel, how can I hand you over to your enemies?
. . .
My heart is stirred inside me.
It is filled with pity for you.
My anger will not burn against you anymore.
I will not completely destroy you.
After all, I am God.
I am not a mere human being.
I am the Holy One among you.
My burning anger will not come against you.
God was a Father to his people Israel. He saved them from slavery in Egypt, and cared for them with all the tenderness, protection and love which the best of fathers lavish upon their little children. But Israel’s response was rejection and betrayal. The Lord’s heart broke as a result.
I wonder if we always realize that this is what happens to God when people ignore him or turn away from his love. God is not an impassive, unfeeling executive, sitting around heaven pushing buttons and pulling levers and watching what happens, looking like a statue with blank indifference on his face. No. God feels. God’s heart is wounded by our sin. He is grieved by our waywardness. His first reaction to our disobedience is to be hurt by it. Do you find it hard to believe that the eternal God of the universe could be hurt by something you might do? Does that seem impossible to you, too much like weakness or imperfection in God? But this is what it means to love. To give our heart to anyone is to risk its being broken; pain is the price of loving.
That rule is just as true for God as it is for any of us. God cannot love without opening himself to suffering. Just listen again to the cry of his heart: “What can I do with you, Ephraim . . . Judah? Your love is like the morning mist . . . that disappears” (6:4). “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms . . . I led them with . . . ties of love . . .” (11:3-4a). The Lord is like a father who, agonizing over his rebellious son, thinks back to the time when he was just a little boy learning how to walk, holding tight to his father, trusting him and depending on him. Now the boy wants nothing to do with the father. That breaks his heart. Our heavenly Father grieves over our sin as much as human parents are hurt by the sins of their children. “God,” commented an old Scottish expositor, “is the chief sufferer in the universe.” We frequently are upset about the suffering God allows us to go through. How often do we think about the suffering we cause him?
If God’s heart is broken by sin, that does not incline him in any way to compromise with sin. He remains “the Holy One among you,” as Hosea called him (11:9). It is because God is so adamantly set against sin that Hosea, like all the prophets, has to speak so much about judgment. Modern folks prefer not to hear – or, hearing, not to believe – this truth about God. It’s much more acceptable today to think that God can just ignore sin, as if sin could disappear without consequences. But a God who is holiness personified, whose judgments are true and righteous altogether, cannot simply close his eyes to the evil that is done and wish it away. Given the fact that we are sinful (and who can deny that?), the Holy One cannot remain among us without judging and punishing our iniquity – or ceasing to be holy himself.
But even as this holy God speaks about the consequences of his people’s sin, he asks, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” (11: 8). God says that his heart recoils within him at the thought of losing his people, no matter what they have done. “I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man – the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath” (v. 9). The human analogy finally breaks down, for ultimately God is not like us. Our love has definite limits, and there are things that can cause us to reject even our own children. But God never rejects his own. He never gives up on us. He never destroys those who are his children.
There is an unresolved tension there. This is as far as we get in Hosea: a God who is both infinitely holy and infinitely loving. He is deeply grieved by sin and determined to punish it, but just as determined to go on loving his sinful children with a love that will not let them go. Hosea could see no further than this apparently unreconcilable conflict between the justice and the mercy of God.
But you and I can see further. We can follow that dilemma all the way to the cross of Jesus Christ, where God finally resolved it. When Christ died for our sin, God’s mercy and justice were satisfied at the same time by one and the same thing. God was both perfectly holy and perfectly loving, and the one who forgives all those who trust in Christ. Amazing love! Have you accepted it for yourself?